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Superintendent candidate Brenda Cassellius emphasizes collaboration

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Superintendent candidate Brenda Cassellius emphasizes collaboration
Brenda Cassellius answers questions at the Mildred Avenue K-8 school.

Former Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said she doesn’t have the answers for many of the toughest issues facing Boston. But citing her reliance on collaboration and her knack for putting together teams and professional learning communities, Cassellius this week expressed confidence she could guide Boston’s school system to success.

As Boston’s school superintendent, Cassellius would be facing persistent student achievement gaps and the challenges of working under a mayor who exercises control over school funding and school department policies.

“I know that this position sits in the mayor’s cabinet,” Cassellius told a panel of community members Tuesday. “I have eight years of government experience leveraging and working across sectors with other agencies. I think that is a strength I would bring to this role.”

Cassellius was the second of three finalists undergoing interviews this week for the superintendent’s job. Miami-Dade County School District Chief Academic Officer Marie Izquierdo was interviewed Monday. Oscar Santos, head of Cathedral High School and former Randolph school superintendent, was interviewed Wednesday.

Besides Cassellius’ eight years as education commissioner in Minnesota, she has prior experience as a teacher, special education paraprofessional and as a superintendent in Minnesota and Tennessee.

During her interview with community members, Cassellius emphasized her preference for a collaborative approach to school governance. She expressed confidence she could work within a system in which the mayor appoints school committee members and effectively controls the schools.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that it really does take an all-hands-on-deck approach, and I am looking forward to working in a community that is leveraging every resource available for children, especially children who have been living in conditions of poverty, children who are not yet speaking English and immigrant and migrant children,” she said. “I think mayoral control allows for that, for leveraging all sectors.”

Asked what she would look to accomplish in her first 100 days as superintendent, Cassellius said she would meet with teachers — those who have worked 25 years or more in the system, those who have worked 20-25 years and others in five year increments, “to see what have they been asked to do. Put it on a list and see what they have tried.”

“I would do a similar thing with the community and ask what they have tried, what is it you are currently working on that works, what is it that you think we should strengthen and move forward with?” she added.


Opportunity gaps

In addressing the Boston school system’s persistent achievement gaps, Cassellius said she would coordinate with other city departments to make sure students who struggle with academics have support they need outside of school.

“My philosophy is that closing opportunity gaps is both academic in-school factors that I have more control over, and then there’s the out-of-school factors that we need your help with, and the community’s help and the city’s help,” she said.

Prenatal health, health access and early childhood education are all factors that can affect students’ performance in the classroom, she said.

In Minnesota, Cassellius employed what she calls a “mixed-delivery system” in which schools coordinated social services for students’ families.


Standardized testing

In past years, BPS teachers have been required to administer multiple assessments to students. Cassellius said she is not in favor of standardized testing.

“I don’t really care for standardized testing,” she said.” I’m not a big supporter. I think that it allows for accountability and it allows for larger scale decisions, but I don’t think tests ought to be used as individual high-stakes exams for children, ever. I don’t think they were designed that way. They were designed for large-scale, over-time information that gives us a good scale for how to adjust our standards and how to adjust our practices as teachers. But if they don’t give information on how a kid can learn better or how a teacher can teach better, I’d say don’t do it.”

Cassellius said teachers are best positioned to assess the progress of their students.

“I think assessment has always been an important part of good teaching and learning. Teachers assess their students and should be assessing their students. I would work with teachers on their pedagogical practices around use of assessments, aligning that to the standards. I believe in a standards-based education. I just don’t believe in a test-based accountability system. We have had a test-based accountability system since No Child Left Behind, and it has not worked.

“My personal preference is to help teachers teach better for kids, and that is actually teachers working together to create a common assessment, work in a professional learning community, understand what students are learning or not learning.”


Mayoral control

Asked how she would fare in a system where the mayor exercises control over the school committee, Cassellius cited her experience in Minnesota.

“I’ve been commissioner of education for the past eight yearsn Minnesota, and you just don’t last that long if you can’t handle the politics,” she said. “I think I’m a strong communicator and strong collaborator, which allowed me to succeed for those eight years in Minnesota. I’m very familiar with the role of a chief executive. I would look to build that relationship with the mayor and all my cabinet colleagues, trying to always leverage the partners at the table with the cabinet.”

Asked what BPS needs to move the district forward, Cassellius said she would not start the job with bold assumptions about what to do, but cited her work in turning schools around in Memphis, Tennessee.

“There are things that have worked to turn around schools fast, for instance in Memphis,” she said. “And we got great test scores. We didn’t close gaps, but we narrowed them quite considerably.”

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